Brian Sims talks with us about hope, growth, opportunity, and dreams
In today’s political climate, our conversations discuss walls, barriers, and ways of keeping people out of the fold of a society that should be centered on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The President holds 800,000 people hostage during a government shutdown, keeping hard earned paychecks out of the hands of those in need. On the other side of the aisle, Democratic political leaders prepare rebuttals on live television to counteract inauthentic words of a political leader who should be focused on the unity of our country. It’s like watching a reality TV show that never has a season finale.
Being kept out of the fold, pushed out of the margins of society isn’t foreign to the LGBT community, women or minority communities. In this political climate it’s important to have hope. It’s important to have an inspiring voice to rise above and offer us light. There is a voice that is giving the community a sense of hope. His name is Brian Sims a Pennsylvania State Representative. Sims talks hope, growth, and about the opportunity to dream about the future.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk and congratulations on your reelection to the House of Representatives!
Brian Sims: Thank you! I’m so glad it’s over!
I bet! Ok, let’s get this question out of the way. On your Instagram, it looks like you spent Christmas with an indoor pig. We need every detail.
BS: Well, I have a friend named Franny Price who is one of the mainstays of the Philadelphia LGBT community. She is the organizer of both Pride and Out Fest. She has a holiday party every year, and the pig apparently makes an appearance every year. But, this is my first year not only being there with the pig, but having a bag of carrots with me. Lo and behold, yeah, we were best friends for the entire party.
Your biography is rich with activism and justice for your constituents, tell us what drives you.
BS: When I first got involved in heavy advocacy, I was in law school, and in my early 20’s. One of the things that I found is that because I didn’t have a bad coming out experience, there was that question that kind of lingered about, well, what was I doing in the LGBT advocacy sphere? I really had to sort of evaluate that for myself. It is an answer that is proven to be true of all the areas in which I advocate, and that is that I generally know what equality looks like. I know what it feels like. I know how close we are to it. My parents are both retired lieutenant colonels in the Army. I was raised in this household with two very powerful people. Each of them had some gender roles and gender norms that others would recognize in them, and many that people would not. I realized that in that same household was a household that supported my coming out. And I know what it looks like when we get it right, what equality feels like when we get it right. It feels like opportunity. It feels like everyone’s given the chance for their ambitions to thrive and to do things, and mostly good things. For me, it’s an easy thing to be in the equality sort of spectrum, in the equality sphere, because I know how good it’s going to be when we get that.
You’ve done so much to stand for the LGBT community, what are you currently working on?
BS: I live in a state that functionally has no statewide LGBT civil rights other than marriage equality, which we got from the court. At the statewide level, I’m working first and foremost on a statewide, LGBT inclusive, nondiscrimination policy. We need to amend our State Human Relations Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity, both real and perceived, so that conversations like the one that you and I are having can’t get people fired in my state. And that’s a very real thing. After nondiscrimination… and that covers housing, employment, and public accommodations on the spectrum of LGBT civil rights, it will include hate crime legislation that is LGBT inclusive. I want a ban on conversion therapy that I’ve been trying to get for the past six years, and an anti-bullying legislation.
So I should be able to walk right into any Philadelphia bakery and buy a cake?
BS: You should be able to walk into any bakery and buy a cake. The gayer the cake, the better!
Apart from the LGBT community, are there other ways more globally in which you are reaching out to the community in your district?
BS: There are a number of ways that I think are really critical for someone like me. I have spent so much time trying to teach straight people about the power of ally-dom. One of the best examples that I can give is to live that ally-dom. For me, I do that with respect to women and reproductive rights. I’d like to think I am one of the proactive, if not the most proactive male legislator when it comes to women’s reproductive rights in my state. A state that tells a woman that she cannot have an abortion, is a state that can tell a woman when and how she has to have one, or when and how people can and cannot have sex. For me, the women’s rights spectrum, the reproductive rights spectrum, is not difficult to reach from the LGBT rights spectrum. What falls right in line there is racial and ethnic justice. Whether we’re talking about economic opportunity or we’re talking about gun control, there’s no question that a state like mine, and certainly a city like mine, allow those things to come hand-in-hand.
We need that camaraderie; we need that support from one another on all spectrums.
BS: And we’re good at it. The life experiences of African-American women, the life experiences of trans people, and the life experiences that many LGBT people, but not all, certainly teach us a level of empathy and a level of understanding of hardship, and how to overcome it. I think is very applicable to government. It’s not just that I want more women in government, it’s not just that I want more people of color and more queer people. It’s that I think those people have the types of life experiences in this contemporary America that are really useful in fixing our democracy.
In regards to your coming out experience, tell us about your formative years alongside of your football team.
BS: I went to Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania in the Poconos. It’s a relatively small school, a good football school. I was in the closet when I got there, and I’d been in the closet in high school. I’m fond of telling people that I wasn’t focused on the closet, I was focused on sports, not to the detriment of my academics. I always did well in school. But sports provided an outlet for me, and I really focused on ways that I thought were bettering myself that I hadn’t done. It was also my first opportunity to have an external sense of authority in my life. When I got to college, the friends that I made, and the quality of those friendships was something that I had hoped would overcome any negativity about me coming out. And I was right. When my team sort of came out to me, it was the type of experience that I wish for every person that I know. It was the type of experience that taught me to look in unique places and spaces for camaraderie and ally-ship. I’ve kept that with me my whole life. Some of my strongest friends, and some of my strongest professional alliances have been with people that many thought were nontraditional places to find support. I learned that playing football.
Are you still in touch with your teammates?
BS: I’m in touch with all my teammates. My teammates are still my best friends, both from high school and college. When I’m in the Capital, I used to stay in a place that I rented. I stayed in a hotel briefly, but now I stay with one of my old teammates and his wife. She also went to our college. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You have that home cooked meal waiting for you.
BS: It’s meant a lot to me to keep these friendships with all of these guys. Not a day goes by, or maybe a week, being that most of them are teachers now, that I don’t get a phone call saying, “Hey, a student just sat me down and explained to me that they are non-binary. What does that mean?” For years when my friends were early on in their teaching career they would call and say, “Hey, I’ve got two students dating each other” or “I’ve got a student that was just outed by another student, how do I approach this?” What I learned is that the legacy of being out to those friends and those people is that they get to be that powerful ally. And you can step in with information and experience. I think that’s a really neat thing about being out is that it robs people of the lie or the line that they don’t “know” any of us and they don’t have to understand us.
Obviously there is a lot of polarization in our country under the current administration, what hope can you give our readers for unity?
BS: In my six years in government as a civil rights attorney, LGBTQ advocate, and activist, I learned one thing that I think makes for good government: it’s empathy. It sounds kind and sweet to hear a cis white man say that, but what I mean is the more the substance of empathy. Empathy is about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. And being a good legislator is about having the ability to do that. I’ll never be impacted by all the bills that I vote on. I have to figure out who they’re impacting and put myself in those people’s shoes. Well, it turns out, and I hope it’s no surprise to many, that women and people of color, and many LGBT people are extremely empathetic because of the life experiences that we’ve had. This is a Congress, and frankly, these are state legislators all across the country that have just elected record numbers of women, record numbers of people of color, record numbers of people that are out and LGBT. The byproduct of those life experiences is going to be good government. Right now, some little girl is waking up in Pennsylvania, or New Jersey, or San Diego, and in her world there are out, MMA fighters, American-Indian, lesbian congresswomen. In her world, there is a member of the U.S. Senate that is an out, proud Lesbian that could be the President one day. Those things matter dramatically.
When I think about me as a young person, I wonder if I was looking up to anybody LGBT. I guess I knew that I wasn’t straight long before I knew I was gay. I don’t know if I was looking for LGBT role models for a long time. Now, there’s not a kid in the country that can’t find a role model whether it’s astronauts, people in government, teachers, athletes, or people in the military. We’ve got queer Marines, and queer professional athlete, and queer members of Congress!
And thank God we have queer Marines!
How can we help support you here in New Jersey?
BS: I think how we all can help support one another is to continue to find and help fund, and train, younger LGBT people to run for office. That’s what helped me the most. I do alright. And I just got re-elected. I’m going to get re-elected in a couple of years. What I need from people is if you’ve got relationships in small towns or counties that aren’t Philadelphia, that aren’t Harrisburg, or Pittsburgh, reach out to those friends. Talk to them about what a lack of LGBT protection looks like and feels like. Tell those people what it’s like to drive to visit them and to know that if you were pulled over in some parts of the state that protection wouldn’t exist.
Lastly, I’d say that every one of us knows a person in our life who should be in office. Not that person that always thought they belonged in the front room, or always had the answer, but that friend of ours that we always think, “Man, in any group trying to make a decision, you’re the person I want in that group. You’re the person that I trust.” Now is that time where you find that person and you reach out to them, and you tell them. They say on average it takes a woman seven times hearing that she should run for office before she’ll consider doing it. I hope that all of us are working our way through those seven times as quickly as possible. That is what our government really needs right now.
We’re so happy to have you representing not only Philadelphia, but also all of us here in Jersey, too. Thanks for spending the time with us today.
BS: I’m grateful! I tell people all the time that the visibility of what we do right now as out people, the stories we can tell about out people, out successes, and out excellence, the stories that are inspiring people to come out, and not be burdened by the closet are also the stories making allies and enemies understand who we are and where we come from better.
I’m really grateful that you guys do this. Thank you.